Joe Sacco: A Bomb in Every Comic
Editor’s note: To see a sample of “Bumf,” activate the slide show at the end of this article. For a larger view of the drawings click on the expansion symbol at the lower right of the slide-show panel.
The cover of Joe Sacco’s satirical comic “Bumf” shows a hooded figure wearing a black suit with an Obama campaign button and, Moses-like, clutching two large stone tablets. But each commandment has been replaced by the word “CLASSIFIED.” The Twin Towers explode in the background like two Fourth of July firecrackers, and in the bottom left corner is an inset drawing of Richard Nixon — wearing the same Obama campaign button. Nixon’s thought bubble says: “MY NAME IS BARACK OBAMA … AND I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE.”
Sacco, with whom I wrote my last book, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” has produced graphic journalistic masterpieces such as “Footnotes in Gaza,” one of the finest works on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. He is also a brilliant satirist. And “Bumf” is a radical, savage and hilarious comic. Its main title is slang for toilet paper and also refers to superfluous documents and publicity material that is destined for recycling or the trash. “Bumf” is a good word for the mindless information — the results of opinion polls, celebrity trivia, sports and empty chatter — that dominates mainstream journalism.
“Bumf” plays on themes found in Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” in which war, violence, military culture and sexual deviancy intertwine. It is in the vein of Robert Crumb’s ribald underground comic art in ZAP Comix and the Weirdo anthologies, as well as the work of the cartoonist Chester Brown, who created a character, Ed the Happy Clown, whose penis is topped with the miniature talking head of Ronald Reagan. This subversive art, largely abandoned by established writers and artists, shatters our perceptions of reality. It excoriates the motives and goals of the powerful. And, in a time of corporate totalitarianism, it is one of the last windows of truth.
Much of Sacco’s early work was satirical. I love his comic called “Mark Victorystooge,” reprinted in his anthology “Notes From a Defeatist.” Mark Victorystooge is a forlorn Trotskyist revolutionary. “Long after Time magazine had declared socialism dead,” Sacco writes, “Mark Victorystooge trembled at the notion of a workers’ paradise rising from the rubble of capitalism … but Mark Victorystooge trembled alone. … He hadn’t been laid in years.” Victorystooge fights back counterrevolutionary thoughts such as “What good will the dictatorship of the proletariat be if I can’t even get a hand job?” His life changes when he takes the role of the hammer in a one-act play adaptation of Marx’s “Wages, Price and Profit.” He falls in love with the woman playing the sickle, and when they eventually have sex — he remains trapped inside his hammer costume — it is “the most erotic 12 seconds of Mark Victorystooge’s life.” But it turns out the party has uncovered Stalinist leanings in his girlfriend. Mark Victorystooge is forced, after being kidnapped and interrogated by party members, to denounce her. By the time the workers do rise up and smash the state, he is so lost and distraught, wandering the streets in his hammer costume, that he is declared an enemy of the revolution and executed. Comics like these — and Sacco has created a lot of them — employ the black humor and dark vision of human nature that define the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Sacco is perhaps best known for marrying his reporting with his graphic art to create serious and important nonfiction books about conflicts in places such as Palestine and Bosnia. And his graphic novels, especially “Palestine,” have introduced a generation to the injustices and suffering inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. He is not only an astute observer of the human condition, which makes him a highly skilled reporter, but also viciously funny. Humor, he knows, is a very effective way to disarm and expose the pretensions and lies of authority. And “Bumf” is a return, in a way, to Sacco’s roots.
“Bumf” portrays our military machine as being led by sexual deviants who, in the name of national security, draw up the “bugger list.” Nixon — Sacco is acutely aware that every crime for which Nixon was investigated is now legal — has come back to life as Obama to preside over the ruin that passes for American democracy. The former president sees that the United States is now a demented vision of a Nixonian paradise brought to reality through the kill lists, the remote-controlled drone strikes, the revoking of due process, endless war, the black sites, extraordinary rendition, the state’s embrace of torture and the evisceration of privacy by the security and surveillance apparatus, as well as the disempowering of the poor and the working class.
The comic is littered with biblical — read “apocalyptic” — quotations, and the first page shows Adam and Eve in an idyllic Garden of Eden, surrounded by animals including a lowing moose, a unicorn and an armadillo. Flip to the next page — a small box reads “Years later …” — and there’s a brutal double spread of modern urban squalor. An overweight whore in fishnet stockings lifts her skirt, revealing cellulite and pubic hair. A drunken amputee pukes next to trashcans that have human body parts sticking out of them. Rats scamper down the street past large turds and used syringes. A man is being shot through the back of the head, his brain flying out, and another, seen through a window, has hanged himself. A naked bishop with a crosier and miter is getting a blow job from a small boy on the street. Jack-booted Nazis march behind them while a monk self-immolates nearby. The second plane is about to plow into the World Trade Center. Buxom, identical women in bikinis pitch beer and pizza on billboards. A large bird with an unshaven human head and a cigarette between his teeth who is guiding Nixon says to him about this hellish world: “THERE’S BEEN A SERIOUS FUCK-UP.”Sacco asks in “Bumf” how we got here. And he presciently sets the beginning of our demise at World War I. That war saw the birth of industrial warfare and the militarization of our society, unleashed the psychosis of permanent war and internal security organs, and led to the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, which were used to shut down radical and populist movements. And the war was accompanied by the rise of the sophisticated systems of mass propaganda that today inundate the population with lies.
Sacco, as he always does, puts himself in his comic. He is meek and eyeless behind his glinting round spectacles, and a little more wrinkled than in his last books. He is the observer, the lens, and at times the movie director, since reality must be organized and uncovered if it is to be understood. And this has always been the goal of Sacco’s fictional and nonfiction work, to organize reality so we can see it — quite literally, since he draws what he reports.
At the opening of the book a colonel orders Sacco to produce a graphic about the officer’s exploits in the trenches during World War I titled “I BUGGERED the Kaiser.”
Sacco parodies the famous photograph that Eddie Adams took of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of South Vietnam’s national police, executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. The Colonel points a pistol at the head of a Vietnamese man, who in the comic is wearing a Pickelhaube, the spiked German helmet of World War I.
“[K]illing the enemy is never enough,” the Colonel says. “We’d been killing them for years.”
The Colonel explains how he ordered his soldiers to strip naked at the first whistle before going over the top.
“AT THE SECOND WHISTLE, THE MEN SHALL SPORT MASSIVE ERECTIONS,” the colonel commanded. “AT THE THIRD WHISTLE, THE MEN SHALL ADVANCE ON THE HUN TRENCHES. THE ENEMY IS TO BE KILLED WHEREVER HE IS FOUND, AND NOT JUST KILLED — THE ENEMY IS TO BE BUGGERED. I WANT TO BE QUITE CLEAR ABOUT THAT LAST POINT.”
To help his troops have erections, the Colonel gives them photos of his own naked backside, noting that his buttocks are “NOT DISSIMILAR TO A SHAPELY WOMAN’S BREASTS.” As in the Pynchon book, the sickness of hypermasculinity, which lies at the heart of military and fascist culture, is pushed to its absurdist conclusions. The headline in the newspapers being hawked in “Bumf” at the end of the war reads: “Kaiser Buggered! Huns Sign Armistice! War Over!” The Colonel is awarded with a military medallion hung on his erect penis.
The next chapter, titled “YOUNG, GIFTED, and NIXON,” shows Michelle Obama shaking Richard Nixon awake in their bed. Nixon has returned to power in the guise of Barack Obama. Nixon, not quite sure what has happened, is escorted deep into the White House basement. He is helped into the robe of a Spanish inquisitor and taken into a vast room — “THE SITUATION ROOM” — presided over by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and George Armstrong Custer, who is accompanied by naked and hooded dominatrixes. Members of the papal Swiss Guard hem in swarms of naked and impoverished people. Men in the foreground are strapped to tables where they are being waterboarded. Hooded naked figures, their hands and feet bound, are hung from the ceiling with wires and hooks. Cherubs fly among them on crude ropes. One rope has snapped and the angel that had been suspended by it lies smashed and bloody on a staircase. It is sacralized authority run amok.
The bird man who is the guide in Sacco’s inferno demands that the authorities produce “THE BUGGER LIST.”
“IS THIS SOMETHING LIKE THE ENEMIES LIST?” Nixon asks.
“WE’VE ADDED A FEW REFINEMENTS,” the bird man answers.
Nixon is soon gleefully munching pizza, standing behind the operator of a remotely piloted aerial drone.
“JUST SO I UNDERSTAND PERFECTLY, WE CAN BLOW SOMEONE TO BITS — ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, YOU SAY — SIMPLY BY PRESSING A BUTTON AND DROPPING A BOMB FROM A THINGY THAT FLIES ALL BY ITSELF?” Nixon asks.
“YES, MR. PRESIDENT,” says the drone operator.
“AND THAT COCKSUCKER WON’T KNOW WHAT HIT HIM? HE DOESN’T SEE IT COMING?” Nixon says.
“NO HE DOESN’T, SIR,” the operator replies.
“AND YOU SAY WE’VE GOT HUNDREDS OF THESE WHATEVER-THEY-ARE CIRCLING THE GLOBE?” Nixon asks.
“DAY AND NIGHT, MR. PRESIDENT,” the bird man tells him. “DO YOU WANT A GO?”
“YOU MEAN TO WIPE OUT AN ENEMY AND SO FORTH?” Nixon asks, stuffing more pizza in his mouth.
“MOVE OVER, KID,” the bird man commands the operator.
Nixon is told that he will govern from a subterranean room that has been ceded to another planet and is therefore beyond the reach of U.S. law. No laws or international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, apply. He is shown mountains of naked suspects in hoods, their hands tied behind their backs. Naked guards, also in hoods, are interrogating them. None of the suspects have committed crimes; they are being tortured to see if they have carried out activities or had thoughts that can be interpreted as crimes. Nixon dons a hood and goes on a drone-killing spree. He tortures a suspect to death and leaves the body in his and Michelle’s bathtub until Michelle demands that it be removed. He calls in his legal adviser, who wears a death mask, to work out a scheme to cede the whole country and finally the planet to “some place in the Andromeda galaxy.” Sacco throws biblical quotations into the text as the power elites transform themselves into omnipotent gods.
“Technically everyone on it [Earth] is now an alien life form,” the bird man says.
By the end of the comic, the hooded Nixon climbs a mountain and enters a large, cube-shaped building topped with surveillance equipment and religious iconography. The next, and last, scene shows Sacco, naked with his glasses over his black hood, leading a group of naked, hooded children to prostrate themselves on a field of human bones before a giant, black-suited figure called “THE PRESIDENT.” Sacco’s drawing of The President echoes both the Temple of Ramses II in Egypt and the Lincoln Memorial. The head of the massive figure cannot be seen. Sacco and the children bow and tremble at The President’s feet. Sacco sits up. “HE DOESN’T NOTICE YOU AT ALL,” he tells the children. He dares to look up at the huge figure. The last frame shows The President, god-like, crouching down into the bones. We see he has the slavering head of a wolf as he stares down at the tiny cartoonist peering up at him. “UNTIL HE DOES. …”Wait, before you go…
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